Genetics, Epigenetics, Paragenetics: Getting Closer to Life

The Harmonizer (2014)
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Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) was the first to explain that certain 'traits' were inherited in plants from one generation to the next. These would later become known as genes. Frederich Miescher in 1869 analyzed a substance from the nucleus of cells, which he therefore called nuclein. Further study of nuclein revealed that it contained elements like hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and phosphorous, with a specific ratio of nitrogen to phosphorous. Then in 1878 Albrecht Kossel determined that nuclein contained nucleic acid, from which he isolated five nucleobases (nitrogen compounds now referred to by the letters C, G, A, T, U representing cytosine, guanine, adenine, thymine, and uracil). It was also discovered that ribose, a sugar was present in the nuclein compound. What Miescher had isolated from the cell nucleus was actually what would latter be identified as DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid). C. H. Waddington (1905 - 1975) first proposed the term “epigenetics” in 1942 to describe the region between the gene and the whole organism (phenotype) [3]. Today, what is called the epigenome refers to all the chromosomal modifications, DNA modifications, chromatin protein modifications and their complexes. It is the epigenome that determines both the expression of the genes and their inheritance. R. A. Jorgenson reports [4], "Many of these modifications appear to be “programmable” and to be “read out” to influence chromosomal functions." Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock stated this revolutionary proposal more clearly in her Nobel lecture [5], “to determine the extent of knowledge the cell has of itself, and how it utilizes this knowledge in a ‘thoughtful’ manner when challenged.” In 1960 R. A. Brinks suggested that chromosomes possess a paragenetic function in addition to their genetic function [7]. The physical nature of the paragenetic function is characterized by the variety of forms or states of chromatin that can reside at any genetic locus. While the genetic function is stable, the paragenetic function is labile and programmable in ontogeny. It is this latter function that allows organisms to transfer informational macromolecules (RNA and proteins) in a systematic and regulated manner over what is known as the “RNA information superhighway.” Given this capacity, organisms may be able to store information at numerous genetic loci in the form of paragenetic chromatin states, which can be reprogrammed during ontogeny or environmental stress [8]. This reprogrammable system could operate over the whole organism as a storage device, allowing it to make informed ‘decisions' during growth and development, or in response to the environment. Such processing capacity could be considered a form of ‘intelligence,' which also could be passed on to future generations. The study of the flow of information within and between cells and organisms represents the cutting edge of modern biological research. While physical correlates of cognitive behavior in living organisms are being discovered, it does not spell reduction to such correlates. The electronic activity within the physical components of a radio, for example, may be minutely determined, but ultimately it is not merely the electrical activity that produces the intelligent speech that is heard. Only the intelligent person whose voice is being broadcast through the radio can explain that. Without the broadcaster, the radio would sit silently even though fully functional. An organism without its living agency also appears to be devoid of metabolic activity although all the chemical components are fully present. How to connect life to matter will be the ultimate challenge that has to be met. This will prove to be a philosophical problem we hope to address in the near future.

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Bhakti Madhava Puri
Bhakti Vedanta Institute of Spiritual Culture and Science


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